Waddington - Second Ascent of the McNerthney PillarDate:
Growing up directly on the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island, I grew up staring at the Coast Range. I watched those magnificent mountains appear each May above the waters– perfect images of forested slopes giving way to snow-capped summits. In the picture perfect Coastal British Columbia summers, my childhood friends and I would troll around on the beach collecting logs for homemade rafts. I would slip into day dreams of crossing the Strait and getting closer to those mountains. By October, those magnificent mountains disappeared behind a blanket of clouds and mist. Rare clear winter days gave me magnificent glimpses of these white cloaked mountains rising above the turbulent winter sea.
I'd like to believe that's where this Waddington dream started!
Sarge, our Sprinter, packed up and ready to go!
Despite pretty darn meticulous planning for almost a year, we didn’t leave Seattle until past midnight. We cruised (with fingers crossed) over the Sumas border-crossing and then made our way up to Hope and up the Coquihalla highway under a starry night. We took turns catching a few cat naps in the back of Sarge (our Sprinter van) and kept on till we were in Cache Creek at 6am!
I was delighted to see that the town hadn’t changed from my childhood memories (Cache Creek still doesn’t have a Tim Horton’s!!) of travelling north on Hwy 1 and then on to Hwy 97 to the Cariboo and beyond. Onward to 70 Mile House and then 100 Mile House where we stopped for produce and bacon at Safeway. The 100 Mile House Safeway still looks like the Courtenay Safeway we shopped at before the bigger groceries came in and changed everything. We turned West onto BC Hwy 20 at Williams Lake to rise up onto BC’s wild and open Chilcotin! Nothing but lodgepole, open rolling hills and meadows and fully-loaded logging trucks (with Bella Coola coastal timber!). It’s truly a magnificent landscape—one perfect for big horn sheep, moose, eagles and bears!
I love Beautiful British Columbia—especially in summer!
We arrived at Bluff Lake, a beautiful lake that sits at the eastern foothills of the Coast Range in the Western Chilcotin. It’s here that Mike and Audrey King run White Saddle Air Services. Mike is famous in the Coast Range climbing circles for his knowledge of the Waddington range and his easy-going and welcoming nature! Their range on the south end of Bluff Lake is what rural BC dreams are made of!
Flying into the Waddington range is one of those spectacular experiences. It’s amazing for anyone, but if you’ve poured over guidebooks, trip reports and studied every piece of writing you can find on the range, it’s really something!! I was so giddy I was bouncing in my seat in the back of the heli! When we rounded the icefall above the Tellot Glacier, we zoomed into the Tiedemann Glacier and the cirque of Waddington, Combatant, Tiedemann, Asperity and the Serras. It’s mind blowing! It’s more massive than any photo can describe. And the Munday Group to the South is astounding—never ending icefalls capped by glacial plateaus for as far as the eye can see!
We climbed the McNerthney Pillar on the north face of Mount Waddington. This route was first completed by the McNerthney brothers, Pat and Dan McNerthney, back in 1986. Despite the appeal of this beautiful rock pillar and “providing far and away the most powerful climbing line of this face of Waddington”, it had yet to see a repeat ascent. To repeat this line would be our goal! Over three and half enduring days, we climbed this amazing mountain. The challenges, the suffering, the beauty and the camaraderie is really beyond words! Luck and weather was on our side and we crested the McNerthney Pillar and summited Waddington in heavy winds but under sunny skies!
The McNerthney PillarOur Strategy
Our plan was to ask really, really politely if we could fly into Sunny Knob, deposit our basecamp gear efficiently (quickly!), load back in the heli with a pack each and drop us at the Waddington/Combatant Col. This plan would avoid the dangerous upper Tiedemann Icefall.
Mike heard us out on our proposal, laughed a bit and told us we could try it, but landing at the col is rare (we had about a 20% chance of that plan working). If it didn’t work, he’d dump us somewhere in the middle of the icefall – wherever he could safely land!! Pretty intense but we went for it.
So we packed alpine style with food for three, maybe three and half days, two half ropes, 5 ice screws, two pickets, smallish rack, 5 pitons, 4 tools (2 for the leader, 1 each for the follower) one Reactor stove, 1.5 canisters of fuel (was more than we needed), one bivy sack, one First Light tent, one Mountain House per night per person, about four bars a day and light sleeping bag and pad. Not exactly going light, but as light as we dared since we had no idea what we were getting in to.
Well, the flight in happened way too fast and the next thing we knew we had dumped our bags at Sunny Knob and we were flying up to the Col. I thought at any point, Mike would tell us over the radio that we were bailing. In what felt like 30 seconds or so, we landed at the Col, unloaded and were alone on the Waddington/Combatant Col with our packs and no wind. It was friggin surreal! It felt like only a few minutes ago, we were back at Bluff Lake, swatting flies and contemplating using the outhouse one more time! Now we were alone on the massive Col surrounded by massive walls, particularly Waddington’s North Face with the McNerthney Pillar egging us on!
The Waddington/Combatant Col
We sort of talked but didn’t say much. Then Joe says, “I think we should go for it.”
It was a little after 9am. The McNerthney Pillar was mostly in the sun (specifically the bottom ice runnels and bergschrund) but nothing had fallen down the face… yet!
So we talked a little about descent options and the like, but it was just burning time so we could make our own decisions in our heads. I was busy weighing taking advantage of the good weather and starting versus bivying a night and starting super early to get the lower bergschrund conditions in as best shape as possible.
Starting up the bergschrundDay 1 Begins
About a half hour later, we were going for it. We walked across to the start of the route and started to realize that the scale was unperceivable. It was taking us awhile to walk up to the bergschrund that looked like it was right there!
Joe took the first lead up the vertical schrund… it was in the sun, it was melting and water was pouring down icicles and down our jackets. Joe placed a screw and then traversed right and up… it didn’t take long for us to be simulclimbing and it didn’t seem like he was getting close to a belay. I started up the first vertical section and it was super tricky trying to do this with one tool. Joe soon shouted that we were on belay. Thank God! Tim and I climbed close together and found a way to pass tools back and forth for the steep sections. We were all pretty damn soaked by the first belay… not an ideal start but it was happening!
The belay position was cramped and Tim and I had crazy screaming barffies (which Joe seems to be immune to). He led on and as he was leaving the belay, I told him to lead on one line and leave the blue line unclipped in case we needed him to deliver his tools to us. It was good that he did that as the next 200+ foot lead had plenty of blue 60+ water ice! Took some time to get those tools down to us, but it was well worth it.
I took off on the next few rock leads which weren’t particularly difficult, but you couldn’t trust the rock for shit. Almost every move required some cleaning and testing, and gear was fiddly to get. This route was beginning kill time no matter how efficient we were at belays and what tricks we tried to pull out. It was steep enough, the bags big enough, the rock loose enough plus the involved route finding—damn if it wasn’t already 4pm by the time we reached the steeper part of the first buttress. Our hopes were dashed of getting to the top of the second buttress bivy site that Dan McNerthney had told us about! Maybe we’d find a lower bivy—we sure hoped so!
The next three hours were burned hitting a few blank sections and rerouting via downclimbing and a tension traverse!! I think Tim was sitting at one belay for over two hours while we shenaniganed around. I remember Tim following that pitch: he bolted out of that belay, raging up the pitch in a flurry of grunts, power moves and alpine ninja magic! Too bad he was about to arrive at another very crowded uncomfortable hanging belay!
What the hell?
Next, a series of cracks were negotiated that led a path up and left to awesome climbing, relatively secure moves and pretty good rock! All I know is that we made hay while we could and moved up several hundred feet in a relatively short stint! The sun was setting and we had made it to the snow benches below the second buttress. Some futzing, some searching and some hoots and hollers brought us to a small, snow and ice covered bivy ledge… it’d do the trick. We chopped snow and ice, melted snow for dinner and water, gawked at the insanely beautiful surroundings and settled into “bed”! It was past midnight already. Day 2
We awoke the next day at first light (5am ish?)! Breakfast seemed like a waste of time so I was leading off at 6:30am. We were pumped and ready to climb hard, climb smart and maybe get up this pillar!!! I made relatively good progress on good rock and generally fun climbing. The climbing gave way to lower angle terrain with more snow. We quickly learned that snow really meant a light covering of snow over ice, so we either had to get into crampons and mix our way up that or try to piece together rock outcropping in rock shoes and place screws for pro in the ice between! Tim ran another full length pitch after mine which was interspersed with the classic quote for the day. Joe and I were busy talking about important subjects such as the latest bikini styles and Hawaiian Tropic vs. Banana Boat when Tim yelled out from above, “Is it stupid to climb ice with rock shoes?” We shrugged at each other and returned, “Of course not! Go for it!”
Note the rock shoes on ice
Tim had taken us to the Promiseland, the base of the second buttress—which we were sure would be the crux of the route. I led us out, up and left, downclimbed, then back up, searching for passage that would connect to cracks and what looked like a good dihedral out left. I traversed farther left, lightly face climbing on good stone but with no pro. The pendulum I was looking at wasn’t reasonable, but neither was the climbing, so I continued on. Then the climbing got unreasonably insecure and a fall wasn’t in the cards, so I retreated all the way back to the belay, back cleaning all the way. I shouted to the others to put on their boots and crampons. We’d have to traverse on the snow and ice below to try to get to the base of that dihedral somehow.
Switching to boots and crampons at semi-hanging belays with two others is a frightening concept. Drop a boot, drop a crampon, hell drop anything and you’re pretty much screwed. Screw up on the remote North Face of Waddington, well, you get the picture. Needless to say, we gripped our shit pretty damn tightly!
Joe got us under that dihedral. It was pouring water from the day’s heat on the snow and ice above the buttress, but definitely climbable. It looked hard, but doable. However, there was this damned flake perched up against the bottom of the dihedral—like a really big flake—right where you’d have to climb to get into the system. The walls were vertical and blank around it. And that block was wickedly loose… ready to tumble. Trundling the block would likely take out our belay and us, no matter which way we went about it. We hummed and hawed… tried to make a decision. Tim peered out further left but it didn’t go. Our only other option might be to traverse back to where we started and beyond and climb way right of where we’d come up. Time was ticking. So we went for it. Tim lead a rope stretcher traverse way out right which sported some spicy, balancy ice moves, though the pro was there so it all worked out.
Tim traversing back (climber's) right
Back into rock shoes and up we went. Shit, we’d burned almost four hours with that debacle. At no point had any of us really wasted much time—we were always doing something—just doing the wrong thing I guess!! The next three pitches went slowly due to loose rock. The leaders had to pick, dodge and finagle themselves and ropes around loose sections so as to not take out the belay team directly below. And that afternoon, the wind picked up like no other. It was cold, cold, cold hanging out at those belays. But that’s what suffering is all about! We made it through and Tim scored a killer lead taking us on the top of the second buttress, in, yet again, fading sun!
Joe and I took a fast 200 foot lead each in search of bivy sites. What was found was the tippy top of the second buttress, a view to the snow arête that joins with the third buttress… and a big fat moon mocking us as we fought the incessant wind.
We took stock of what lay ahead. An icy third buttress and some huge seracs coming off the Angel Glacier above! But it looked doable… sort of! But that’d have to wait till tomorrow.
We rapped down a pitch and found a crappy ledge, started clearing snow, melting snow, and doing all that bivy crap. We were back in our bags by just before midnight. Hey, we’re getting a bit faster at this!!
We actually slept ok that night and awoke to a glorious sunrise. Waddington’s north face is a glorious place and looking out at Combatant, Tiedemann, Asperity, the rest of the remote Coast Range is something to behold!! Day 3
We ascended our lines (since we rapped to sleep) and were ready to attack the third buttress, the chaos of ice behind them and go for the summit! We make quick work of the three leads up the snow arête and some mixed terrain that took us to the toe of the third buttress. The wind was howling though and conditions not ideal. Joe put on rock shoes and led up and left. As soon as he was far enough from us, he began the task of testing blocks and finding passage amongst the rock and ice filled sections between. Tim and I did our best to stay warm but it was pointless. Talk was muted while we endured the situation in our own worlds. Tim took the next lead which looked like it might, just might take us to the top of the buttress. Joe and I watched as spindrift cascaded down the headwall above until the wind picked it up and litters it in every which direction.
Upper snow arete to the third buttress
The spindrift pitch
Tim’s lead looks heinous. Steep, iced up rock with a barrage of snow and ice chunks coming from the unknown above. Soon he disappeared up and onto the headwall. The rope was almost all out but we heard nor sensed anything… for a long time. The inevitable questioning began: “What’s he doing up there?” “No pro for anchor maybe?” “Is he waiting for us to do something?” “We’re ready to simul if he keeps moving.” “It must be so shitty up there in the wind and snow… I’m sure that spindrift is getting bigger all the time!” “What’s he looking at do you think?”
Tim finally yelled off belay and we followed the pitch in a flurry of jerky movements that would never pass for a beginner rock climbing class! I was absolutely flabbergasted at the headwall climbing. The rock is sound, the holds are there but it’s covered in snice and getting more covered every few seconds. My boots are managing to edge on the small holds, but barely and I can’t see anything with all the blowing snow! I can’t stop thinking how ridiculous this all is. But halfway up the headwall, I start to get into it and
I start hooting and hollering and taking it for what it is! We both congratulate Tim for his bold lead and he laughs back at us, but we can barely hear each other over the wind!
We’ve reached the glacier and magically there is passage through the seracs—a 50+ degree? ice slope leads up and bypasses the overhanging giant seracs to our left and right—unbelievable really! Tim has used 3 screws for his anchor. I remove one and take the other two and two pickets and start up. I want to place a screw after some initial front pointing, but I’ll run out of screws way to fast with that sort of climbing. I force another ten moves. Then another ten moves. I dump in a screw, happy for the Express knobs that make spinning those babies in so efficient! Another 50 feet and I put in another screw! Sweet. The wind is horrendous but being on lower angle ice like this is just like Peru I tell myself. And the wind too! Joe and Tim fall out of site and I start counting my steps so I have some sort of idea of how much rope I have out. I coult 100 steps and dig in a T-slot in sugar snow. We’re gonna do this I say to myself!
Tim and Joe come raging up and we nod to each other and start simuling on one rope (and put the other away). The upper slopes of the Angel Glacier feel like the moon. There is so much spindrift getting tossed around that we only get glimpses of the NW Summit from time to time. There’s no features other than the arching snow slope, and we are getting knocked down by the wind—hell we might as well have been alpine pirates just getting our land legs back! It was unreal. All that work on those buttresses for this wind?! Ha! We huddle up under the NW summit block, dump our packs, dump in a picket and clip them in. Up we go with a picket and a few screws. As we near the final ice pitch to the summit, we get a glimpse of Waddington’s Main summit. It’s all iced up and looking steep as all hell! It might as well have been Cerro Torre to us at that point!
The final summit section
We huddle on the NW summit together, shoot some vid and stills and shout meaningless sounds at each other! It’s awesome! The relief around us is spectacular. The wind is blowing so hard it’s almost silly! We haven’t felt our toes in hours and we can’t wipe the stupid grins off of our faces!
Windy, windy summit shot!
We downclimb from the summit, the final climber grabbing the screws on the way down, and jump across the mostly filled in bergschrund and collect our bags. We head off in search of a couloir that joins Waddington’s NW slope to its heavily glaciated NE face. We find the right one and the snow in the couloir is in good shape for the first hundred or so feet. Downclimbing goes easily, but the wind still whips at us in the couloir where we thought we’d for sure find refuge.
I downclimb first and soon I hit ice. I try with all my might to front point and get us out of the couloir but with one tool it’s just too slow. I climb back up to the boys and we start v-threading. Two full length raps take us out of the couloir, over a yawning bergschrund to more benign glacier slopes below. Unfortunately, our ropes only took us to the edge of the schrund and we were right in the middle of a bunch of jumbled crevasses. Arriving at the end of the rappel, I find Joe frantically deadmanning a picket to anchor to while we pull the ropes and change over to glacier travel mode. As I transition, I unclip my tool from my harness and swing it into the snow, forgetting to clip it to my umbilical. Joe turns around and accidentally kicks my tool and it starts down the NE Face to our horror. We start shouting at it to stop, to hook an ice runnel, to stick its pick into the firm neve… anything! And it did—several hundred feet below us! But I can get it! There’s no ice fall between us, no yawning bergschrund, just more glacier and some elevation! So we set up and I tiptoe down the glacier, careful not to disturb the snow and ice too much, as if some sudden movement will send it tumbling off the face, never to be found again!
We can see the Stroll now, the only easy mountaineering on the whole mountain, which spans a mostly horizontal strip of glacier under the summit towers. We start yelling, whooping and marveling at the towers above us! We could have started the descent off the mountain at that point but it was getting late, we were tired and the views were spectacular. We took a gamble on the weather holding another day and set up for the night, this time on FLAT ground!! Tim and I took stock of our feet and it seemed that we might have let them go too long without some love. Tim had no feeling in 9 of his toes; I had no feeling in either of my big toes. Turns out that we both got mild frostnip, but Tim significantly worse than me.
Our final bivy--flat ground!
On the descent, Munday's north face behind me
Lower Bravo GlacierDay 4
We slept well and awoke pre-dawn to start our decent. The first 2000 feet went smoothly and soon we were at Bravo Col looking down at the Cauldron, a mess of icefall, crevasses and threatening slopes. This is bypassed mostly by two raps down to the lower Bravo Glacier and some tedious and lengthy crevasses navigation. We got down, not without some crevasses shenanigans of course, and slogged our way over the immense Tiedemann Glacier to Sunny Knob where we were greeted by the Swedish Bikini Team and a Norwegian Ice Bar complete with bottomless vodka and Red Bulls!
I'll let you figure out what is what!
Chocolate Peter Rabbit!!!
There’s more to our trip to the Waddington, but that’s it for the McNerthney Pillar. Mad props to the strong band of brothers, Dan and Pat, on their visionary first ascent! If you haven’t heard of them, do a little digging in the Nelson guides and you’ll get a taste of what these boys were up to a few decades back!